Easy Modes and Backward Reasoning

I think my ironically-favorite part of the discourse around difficulty and easy modes in Sekiro and Soulsborne games is that anti-easy folks make both of these claims:

  1. Adding an easy mode to a Soulsborne game would ruin the intended experience of overcoming challenge through persistence and learning.
  2. Soulsborne games already have an easy mode since you can summon a friend.

I don’t know if I’ve heard any individual person say both these things together - the kettle logic might be a little too obvious if you’re actually saying “Easy mode would be bad, and anyway they already have it and that’s good!” But I also don’t think I’ve seen anyone really address the contradiction here.

You’d think that someone railing against adding an easy mode would also advocate removing the friend-summoning, which as Shamus Young points out does far more to damage the “intended experience” than, like, optional damage scaling would. But I haven’t seen anyone take this position - any time I’ve seen someone anti-easy bring up the friend summoning, it’s framed as a positive.

While I think this is largely a moot point anyway because intended experience is not worth protecting in the first place, it’s still worth understanding what’s happening here. I’ve previously argued that anti-easy stances are about status signaling by hardcore players and I’m sure some of that’s involved, but if that were the only thing happening then we should also see those players complaining about the summon-a-friend feature. So I suspect the main driver here is simple status-quo bias.

Fans of games, by definition, like those game the way they are. If you love Soulsborne games and someone says they wish Soulsborne games would change in a particular way to become more appealing to that person, on some level it’s totally natural for that to come across as an attack on something you love. This person - this outsider - doesn’t like the games they way they are and can’t be trusted to value the things about the games that are important to you. They want to take something you like and change it into something they like, which might mean something you like is taken away from you. It is thus easy and natural to start from a place of “change is bad” and look for justifications rather than considering the suggested changes on their own merits relative to what you actually enjoy about the games.

If you start from “change is bad” and the suggested change is “add an easy mode,” now you have to argue that “easy mode is bad.” The obvious justification for this is that it damages the intended experience - that’s a good catchall for defending artistic works against change, but it’s especially good in this case where the franchise has been explicitly stated to be about overcoming difficulty.

Now, obviously “difficulty” means different things to different players of varying capabilities and skill levels which is why easy modes exist in the first place. If your reasoning were starting from “How do we ensure Soulsborne games present difficult but feasible challenges for the largest audience,” you might well conclude that they should have easy and hard modes! But if you’re actually starting from “easy mode is bad,” the intended experience can seem like a good justification.

Similarly, the justifications that make the summon system okay in a game about difficulty (it’s optional, it provides a new way to experience the game that some players may prefer, etc.) apply just as much to a hypothetical easy mode. But you’ll only notice this if you’re actually reasoning about those justifications on their own merits. If you’re starting from “change is bad” you’ll end up attacking easy mode and defending the summon system.

I’m not saying everyone advocating against adding an easy mode to Soulsborne games is doing it for this reason, but I am automatically suspicious that this is behind any claim that an easy mode would ruin or destroy Soulsborne games when they seem to have survived the summon feature just fine, or any arguments that conveniently suggest making no changes whatsoever to the games as they already exist. If there’s a consistent explanation of why easy mode would be bad for Soulsborne but friend-summoning as implemented is just fine, I’d love to hear it.